How to Install a Car Seat: A Confused Parent's Guide

Why oh why are car seats so complicated? We finally cracked the code so you can install or reinstall your kid's seat with confidence.
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 When Adrienne Penake's son, Brandon, developed a high fever and began wheezing one night, the San Mateo, California, mom knew she had to get her 11-month-old to the local urgent-care center. There was just one problem:

"My husband, Dave, and I had taken the car seat out of my car a few days prior and hadn't set it back up yet. That night, Dave wasn't home and I was unable to connect the clips to the latches in my car," Penake recalls. "After many tries, I just couldn't do it. In a panic, I had to borrow the car of a friend who has kids the same age as mine to get Brandon to the doctor."

Struggling to install a car seat is tough enough on a good day. When you're in a hurry, it can be next to impossible. LATCH, which stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children, is a system of built-in straps and hooks created to makes car seat installation easier. But despite nearly every car seat and most vehicles manufactured since September 1, 2002, being required to use the LATCH system, we’ve still got a long way to go when it comes to simplifying installing a car seat.

RELATEDThe Best Car Seats for Babies and Toddlers

Parents aren't the only ones frustrated. So are Child Passenger Safety (CPS) technicians and instructors -- the very people trained to make sure your car seat is safely installed. An AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety survey found that about one third of the CPS techs and instructors reported that parents are less likely to install the seat correctly using the LATCH system than with a seat belt, and 81 percent say that these errors are not obvious to parents. What's more, 55 percent of respondents say they think LATCH needs to be improved.

It didn't help when the 2014 revisions on weight-labeling for LATCH came out. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) now requires the label to essentially warn parents not to use the lower anchors of LATCH once the child and the seat combined reach a weight of more than 65 pounds. Why?

With car seats getting heavier, the concern is that the excess weight could cause the lower anchors to detach during a crash. Once your child exceeds that maximum weight, he can continue to ride in the seat, but you will need to stop using the lower anchors and switch to a seat belt. You should still use the top tether, if possible.

RELATED: How to Choose the Right Car Seat for Your Child

The sad fact remains that with or without LATCH, three out of four car seats are installed improperly, according to NHTSA. "Many parents fail to read both the car-seat instruction manual and their vehicle manual," explains Jennifer Ryan, AAA's director of state relations. "You need to look at your vehicle manual's seat-belt section, LATCH section, and car-seat-installation section."

Since all car seats can also be installed with a seat belt, is using LATCH worth the hassle? It's not a hassle if you have the right vehicle-and-car-seat combination, says Benjamin Hoffman, M.D., a Portland, Oregon, pediatrician, injury-prevention specialist, and CPS technician. But determining that can be tricky; there's no database for parents to consult, and we have to rely on trial and error, he adds. This is why it's so important to get your car and seat checked by a CPS tech to determine how to best install it (find one at cert.safekids.org). For now, be sure you're not making these mistakes before you take your next ride.

How to Install Infant and Toddler Car Seats

The rule: A child should be in a rear-facing seat from birth until he reaches the height and weight limit of his rear-facing seat.

Installation Tips

  • Use either the lower anchors or the seat belt — not both. Some parents believe that using both methods will make their child doubly safe. "But most manuals will tell you that this has not been tested and therefore should not be done," says Dr. Hoffman.
  • Start with the rear-center position. "We have always told parents that the safest spot is the center of the backseat, but many vehicles only have LATCH connections for the side seats," says Jessica Jermakian, senior research scientist at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), in Arlington, Virginia. As a result, parents of rear-facers are often forced to use the center seat belt instead, which is still safe but sometimes not as easy. An alternative is to put the seat in the middle, borrowing a LATCH anchor from each side position, which only some vehicles will allow. The drawback to this workaround is that if you have more than one child you can't install another restraint in that row.
  • Position the seat where you can get the tightest fit. "Start with the car seat in the center -- again, if the vehicle manufacturer allows it. But if you can't get a tight fit, move it to either side," says Julie Prom, a certified CPS instructor and child-safety advocate in Chicago. "A good fit on the side is better than a bad fit in the center." That means the seat should move less than an inch from side to side or front to back.
  • Lock the seat belt into position. If you're using a seat belt instead of the lower anchors, make sure you pull the seat belt all the way out to switch it into locking mode; this way the belt will stay locked when you install the seat. Your car's owner's manual can help with this.
  • Position your kid. The harness straps that hold your child in place should be snug, and the chest clip should be at the child's armpit level to keep straps from sliding off the shoulders, explains Dr. Hoffman. "The clip is especially important for rear-facing children who can be ejected if it's not in the proper position," he adds. The harness straps also need to be threaded through the correct slots — for rear-facers, this means the slots that are at or below the shoulders.

RELATEDThe Best Rear-Facing Car Seats

How to Install Car Seats for Preschoolers

The rule: Only when your child reaches the upper weight or height limit of her rear-facing seat, switch her to a forward-facing seat with a harness until she reaches that seat's weight limit or height restriction.

Installation Tips

  • Always use the top tether. In a 2013 IIHS survey, certified CPS techs observed parents using the top tether anchor only 56 percent of the time, and those seats installed with a seat belt were especially likely not to be tethered. "Using the top tether for a forward-facing seat is a must, whether you use the lower anchors or the seat belt," says Prom. "It stops the seat from moving forward by 6 or 8 inches and decreases the risk of head injury," explains Prom.
  • Check for the correct tether connection. Another factor involved in tether use is its location. Parents are more likely to use the top tether when the tether anchor is easy to find, found the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. This is often the case in sedans, which typically have tether anchors on the rear shelf behind the backseat. As we explain in "Making Sense of LATCH" on the next page, in minivans and SUVs the top tether anchor could be on the floor, on the middle or lower seat back, in the cargo area, or on the ceiling. In fact, it's not unusual for a parent to attach the tether to the wrong hardware, such as a cargo hook, Jermakian says.
  • Position your kid. In a forward-facing seat, the harness straps must be threaded through the slots that are at or above the shoulders.

RELATED: Best Convertible Car Seats 2018

How to Install Booster Seats

The rule: Once your child outgrows the upper weight or height limit of the forward-facing harness seat, use a belt-positioned booster until he's 4 feet, 9 inches and between 8 and 12 years of age.

Installation Tips

  • Choose the right booster for your child. High-back boosters provide more side-impact protection for smaller kids and help position kids better, especially if they fall asleep in the car. They're also a better choice in vehicles that have no head restraints, such as a pickup truck with bench seats, says Ryan. Older kids prefer backless boosters, which are less obvious, and that's fine. But use a high-back seat for as long as you can.
  • Secure the booster seat in your vehicle. Says Dr. Hoffman, "A booster without a child sitting in it can become a projectile in a crash." Many booster seats now come equipped with LATCH connectors that can prevent this from happening. Without those connectors, you should instead buckle the booster in, even when your child's not using it.
  • Position your kid. Both seat belt components — the shoulder and lap belts — must be in the proper location at the moment of a crash to protect effectively. The shoulder belt needs to travel across the collarbone and breastbone (never tucked under the arm or behind the back), while the lap belt needs to lie on the lower part of the pelvis, and not on the soft part of the belly.
  • Don't move your child out of a booster too soon. "That 4'9" recommendation to move to a seat belt is not a hard-and-fast rule," explains Dr. Hoffman. "The average height of an 8-year-old is only 4'2", and most kids don't hit 4'9" until they're closer to 11 years old. Meanwhile, some may have long legs while others have a long torso, so the seat belt is not going to fit them both the same."

RELATED: How to Safely Match a Car Seat with Your Car

Making Sense of LATCH

Still confused? Here’s an extra cheat sheet for using the LATCH system in particular:

Lower anchors: These are the small bars in the space between the rear seat backs and the seat cushions; they're used for installing forward- and rear-facing seats

Lower anchor strap: Attached to the bottom of the car seat, the strap has two hooks or buckles, one on each side of the seat.

Top tether anchors: These metal loops can be on the shelf area near the rear window. In minivans and SUVs, they may be on the floor, under the seat, on the ceiling, or, in this photo, on the back of the seat.

Top tether strap: It comes from the top of the car seat and has one hook or buckle at the end.

RELATEDCar Seats Safety Guidelines

A car seat that is correctly installed is key to keeping your baby safe in the car, but many seats are in wrong. Learn the steps to getting your seat in right.

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